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The History of Sugar Cane


Figure 1: Source:


The plant sugarcane, whose formal name is saccharum officinarum, belongs to the grass family (Braun), and is depicted in Figure 1 above. The plant is grown primarily in tropical and subtropical climates (Sharpe). The final product refined from sugarcane is known as sucrose, which is the type of sugar most prominently used around the world today (Braun).


Sugarcane is thought to have originated in the islands of the South Pacific. Since the seventh century the plant has followed a westward trajectory, spreading first to India, then Mesopotamia, Baghdad and Egypt (Phillips 28-9). By the 10th century it was being cultivated in Spain (Philips 29). Arabs were the people mainly responsible for the propagation of sugarcane throughout the world (Sharpe). In the 15th century, the Portuguese and the Spanish brought sugarcane to the Atlantic islands; first to Madeira and then to the Canaries and Sao Tomé (Vieira 42). It was on these islands that the mills and sugar plantation were first implemented (Schwartz 10).


In the 16th century, sugar agriculture was introduced to the Americas. In the early 1500s, what is now known as the Dominican Republic became the first Caribbean island to establish a sugar mill (Sharpe). From there sugar production spread to other Caribbean islands and to the mainland. The spread of sugarcane cultivation proceeded successively, transferring from one region to the next and usually superseding the previously dominant producer (Schwartz 13). According to Schwartz (13), this pattern emerged for several reasons, including: economies of scale, access to labor and markets, enhancement of the plantation structure, and commercial and political restrictions imposed by consumer countries.


Today, about 76% of the sugar used around the world is produced from sugarcane (World of Sugar). Currently, Brazil, Thailand, the European Union, Australia and Cuba furnish almost three-quarters of free market sugar exports (World of Sugar).


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